The Lorax's trees

Somewhere along the timeline, among those frenetic years between Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, the popularity of landscape painting took a nose dive. Traditional landscape's unceremonious dumping was most noticeable before heavy Cubism but after early Fauvism -- right around 1900 -- and it's not that the general population suddenly stopped adoring artists' hearty renditions of the outdoor terrain. It was the highbrow art world that turned its attention to any art movement not concerned with such idyllically straight-up work. They cooed over Rayonism, De Stijl, Precisionism, Dada, and their ilk, and finally Abstract Expressionism and all its "modern" art offshoots. Those once-popular-as-varsity-jocks artists -- Cole, Durand, Church -- were left in the dust of the romantic 1880s, their meticulous panoramas suddenly passé (though still pricey), while the new kids presented "landscape" in such abstracted extremes that one could hardly discern anything so solid as a mountain or tree from the planar/dappled/linear result.

That, or the new kids ignored landscape altogether, concerning themselves instead with such timely issues as the rise of industry, the advent of war, the corruption of politics, the moral decay of man's character. Who needs gurgling brooks curving through pristine fields when what's really on the brain is all that blood shed in the Spanish Civil War? Art's function as Beautifier had -- permanently, it seemed -- given way to art as Social Critic.

But landscape didn't so much go away as it just took a quieter place in the long line of things that inspires man to pick up a paintbrush. In all the years that Picasso contorted the angles of women's faces and Motherwell attacked the canvas with gut-slicing aggression and Fischl presented suburbia as a fine place to masturbate, the world's flora and fauna managed to eke out an admirer here and there. Surely de Kooning's nightmare visions are universal, or even timeless in their own aberrant way, but nothing is quite as timeless and universal as snow falling on a forest, or sunlight glinting off breaking waves. Thus, careful practitioners such as Diebenkorn and Wyeth and even Helen Frankenthaler unapologetically referred to landscape as a catalyst for their works, confident that while painting genres go out of style, Mother Nature never will.

After all, great artists don't turn off their emotions and associations just because they're looking at something suspiciously unhip; they often paint whatever's in front of them, and bring whatever feelings they're experiencing into the work itself. While some, such as Wyeth, continued to focus on the "great outdoors," a.k.a. what lay beyond growing city bounds, many artists became smitten with the city centers to which they migrated in order to launch their careers.

In fact, traditional landscape spawned a ballsy little progeny called "urban landscape painting," with some most doting babysitters found in Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis, John Marin and Richard Estes. It was still landscape, sweeping and ambitious and unpopulated by pesky humans, and still concerned with capturing atmospheric essence. It's just that in the city, the landscape swells with a smoggier, louder, more volatile essence. And on the gallery scene, it became the far cooler way to present an environment.

But once in a while you stumble on a current artist who still champions the quieter kind of landscape painting -- the Mother Nature kind. What's fascinating is that these painters have such a thick history of traditions and visual experimentation from which to pull; Durand's tradition-bound aesthetic may be referenced in a new work by a new artist, but his trad posits are raped and pillaged by a century of other artist's impositions. It's the kind of thing to inspire a viewer to think "Well, it's a cross between Cezanne and Cole, with a sliver of Hockney's L.A. stuff thrown in for measure." It's a great artist indeed who can, these days, circumvent such crude comparisons and forge a type of landscape image that can't be categorized.

Right now at Craighead-Green Gallery, there are two such painters on display. Marci Crawford Harnden and Carole Pierce, though remarkably different in their approaches to outdoor scenes, have each cultivated a style that breathes brooding life into the genre. This is stylization used with haunting power; emotions seethe from these works like blood from an unexpected knife wound. So much for idyllic.

A natural knee-jerk and incomplete response to Harnden's tiny oil-on-paper works would be to feel charmed by them. They vibrate with children's book illustration personality, all dipping branches and mossy hills and shimmering patches of sunlight. But look closer. Those closing shadows at the edges and all the darkness weighing the foreground aren't quite so friendly. A slightly menacing blackness threatens to drift out from the densely forested boundaries and turn an otherwise lovely meadow into a disturbing dream -- these are illustrations for Grimm's original fairy tales, not Disney's homogenized ones. Forget waiting for seven bright-eyed dwarves to bounce into the picture plane. You should be looking for the Ice Queen bent on revenge, or a decidedly rabid Big Bad Wolf.

The slippery tension is delicious. It's not often you get beauty, charm, and anxiety packed into such a small space. Most of Harnden's works aren't much bigger than the span of a large palm or two, spiking the gem-like intensity of the images. Trees and shrubs and water have a better chance to be intense when reduced.

One of the more precarious developments in landscape painting's evolution has been its growing use as metaphor. While a few painters can pull off "This river cutting across a mountain range is actually man's journey through life" ad nauseam, most that attempt it get mired in pretension and cliché. Harnden does not. Her tiny windows on lush nature scenes are more creepingly metaphorical. Certainly all that subtle, unsettling element represents more than her last visit to some northeastern woodland. It's everything we encounter in this life that makes us check our trust and happiness at the door: acquaintances who seem great on the surface but set off our bullshit detector, a job that vibrates with shallow cheer but works you to death, a lover who dines you before and busts your chops later. This is the darker side of Dr. Seuss -- the Theodore Geisel who saw the effects of death and war and couldn't always keep that anguish out of his alter-ego's books.

Dallas-based Harnden is new to the area and new to Craighead-Green, but the quality of her images should ensure her place among the region's notables. Carole Pierce has been around a bit; this is her second show with the gallery, and her current work, while stylistically at the other end of the landscape spectrum from Harnden's, packs its own disconcerting effect.

These are paintings foggy with memory; they almost seem like enlarged splices from a sepia-tone film. Middle-ground waterways snake between monolithic trees, symmetry fades into blurry curves. The winsomeness stemming from such nostalgia is spiked with both heavy longing and dodgy cynicism; Pierce looks back on a trip to Central France with the romanticism of a weary traveler. She saturated herself with the eye-stroking visuals of Parisian gardens, but can't quite shake the haze from her mood.

Large and small, these oils on blocky canvas radiate with smoky dichotomy: Pierce remembers too much, she wants to remember more. The memory is strong with private associations and weak with rational seeing, and it leaves you with an innate sense that Pierce would let you in on her world if she could just reconcile with it herself. It's not that these images lack affection. It's that they're washed in the regret and resentment that comes from being separated from the place you'd really rather be. Pierce was yanked from this dream like a baby from its womb, and once back in Texas, she paints the dream tinged by such trauma.

Again, so much for idyllic. With Pierce and Harnden, landscape painting is paying us one of its sporadic visits. Only this time it's looking not only different, but a bit threatening as well.

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